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Photo shows that made history

As a new book surveys landmark photographic exhibitions, museums are only starting to catch up with the digital revolution of the medium

Milan/New York

Quentin Bajac, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and Alessandra Mauro, the editorial director of the Forma Foundation for Photography, Milan, discuss curating photography in the age of the internet in Photoshow, Mauro’s new book. A historical survey of landmark exhibitions, it is published by Contrasto and Thames & Hudson.

Photoshow includes shows ranging from the “International Exhibition of Artistic Photography” in Vienna in the 19th century to Erik Kessels’s 2011 show “24 Hrs in Photos”, and the contributors reveal why they were significant.

“I have no doubt that the future lies in the digital museum,” Bajac tells Mauro, adding, “by that I don’t mean just a website.” Museums, Bajac says, have still to embrace the paperless form of photography, “unlike the public at large” and many artists.

Bajac tells The Art Newspaper that the digital photography museum of the future “will commission work that is meant to be looked at only on screen”. He says that paradoxically digitisation allows museums to present the materiality of historic images in a way that is impossible in an exhibition or book.

MoMA is already exploring the possibilities presented by digitisation. In December, the museum launched “Object: Photo”, an online extension to the exhibition Bajac has organised of the Thomas Walther collection of Modern photography (1909-49), which runs until 19 April.

“Object: Photo” is an Andrew F. Mellon Foundation-funded research and website project that allows users to explore in detail the images by avant-garde photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Berenice Abbott among others. You can look behind prints, see the results of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and discover information based on new research.

The project is led by Maria Morris Hambourg, the senior curator of the Thomas Walther Collection Project, who is the founding curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of photographs, and James Coddington, the chief conservator at MoMA. A symposium is planned for later in 2015.

• For the exhibition’s website, visit moma.org/objectphoto

• Photoshow: Landmark Exhibitions that Defined the History of Photography, edited by Alessandra Mauro, Thames & Hudson, 2014

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1 Vienna, 1888-91

There had been big international photography exhibitions before, but none on a par with those held in Vienna in 1888 (left) and 1891. Its patron was an archduchess of Austria: Marie Theresa of Portugal (1855-1944), who was an enthusiastic amateur photographer and champion of it as artistic medium. Emperor Franz Joseph I was among the many visitors to the Austrian Museum of Applied Art (now MAK).

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2 Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, 1905

Alfred Stieglitz opened a studio and gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York in 1905 with the exhibition “The Little Galleries of the Photo Secession”. The small gallery became a centre for avant-garde photography as well as painting and sculpture. Its decor and exhibition aesthetic were as influential as the works on show: the walls of 291 were covered with rough, pale-coloured cloth, which Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, would use in its galleries 25 years later.

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3 “Road to Victory”, 1942

“Road to Victory” opened at the Museum of Modern Art in May 1942, where it attracted 80,000 visitors before going on tour across the US and abroad. Organised by Edward Steichen, with Carl Sandburg, and designed by Herbert Bayer, the show presented an epic portrait of the nation through 134 images (chosen from around 50,000), which were enlarged and installed in such a way that according to one critic: “They jut out from the walls and up from the floors to assault your vision.” In 1955, Steichen and Sandburg followed this up with another high-impact MoMA show, “The Family of Man”.

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4 CNP, Paris, 1980s

France’s long-standing love affair with photography exhibitions flourished in the 1980s. Established in 1982, the Centre National de Photographie (CNP) spent its formative years at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where its founding director, Robert Delpire, launched the biennial “Moins Trente”, which featured works by photographers under the age of 30 and spectacular solo photographer exhibitions, such as “William Klein: le commune des mortels,” 1986-87, featuring enlargements of 35mm images that form a panorama.

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5 “24 Hrs in Photos”, 2011

Erik Kessels, the Dutch photographer and curator, united the mass appeal of digital photography and the finite space of a museum gallery in the exhibition “24 Hrs in Photos”, unveiled at Amsterdam’s Foam in 2011 (right) and reinstalled in the summer of 2013 at Rencontres d’Arles. He filled a single room with all the photographs posted on Flickr and Facebook on a single day. Visitors were free to wade through the heaps, choosing any that caught their eye.